Algae test funding fails in General Assembly

A bid for $500,000 in state funding to increase testing of harmful algae blooms on freshwater bodies, including Lake Anna, appeared to run out of steam this week in the Virginia General Assembly.

The Senate Appropriations Committee did not include the money in its budget. Sen. Mark Peake, who represents eastern Louisa, had proposed a budget amendment for the state Department of Health to manage the freshwater testing program over a two-year period.

George Goodwin, Peake’s legislative aide and a Louisa County resident, said he is already thinking about how to find more support for the study in the 2021 legislative session.

“I’ll see how broad a coalition I can put together,” he said, noting he has reached out to the James River Association, Chesapeake Bay Foundation and others with an interest in the issue.

The health department has limited funding now for freshwater testing and borrows it from a marine water testing program.

“Harmful algae blooms were set up to be a coastal issue and that’s how the funding has come about,” Denise Bonds, Thomas Jefferson Health District director, told the Louisa County Board of Supervisors on Jan. 6.

Earlier in the legislative session, the House Appropriations Committee declined to address Del. John McGuire’s proposal to study harmful algae blooms. His bill called not just for enhanced water testing, but also to try to find the algae blooms’ cause and devise a strategy to eliminate them.

Meanwhile, Lake Anna Civic Association is expanding the parameters of its annual water quality testing this year to include harmful algae.

After two years of algae blooms and swim advisories on the lake, the association spent the past few months working with various state agencies on ways to better evaluate how algae can become harmful.  

"We want to get ahead of the problem this year and hopefully be able to more accurately determine the impacted area,” said Harry Looney, a member of LACA’s  water quality committee.

Blue-green algae occur naturally in all water bodies and their decomposition is part of the life cycle. But an overabundance of certain types of algae can lead to the release of toxins.  

LACA and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality are responsible for monitoring water quality. The health department issues swim advisories when harmful algae levels are high.  

The current available funding limits testing to April through October, which is considered the swim season. Since toxin testing is expensive, a more general evaluation is used to issue an advisory, which typically stays in effect until there are two clear testing cycles. The tests are sometimes conducted two weeks apart.

This means a section of the lake could be placed under a swim advisory for as much as a month or more at a time.  

LACA’s water monitoring program evaluates E. coli, phosphorus, nitrogen, temperature and other factors. The association conducts testing at 21 sites in conjunction with DEQ, while the state agency monitors another eight sites on its own.  

All of DEQ’s test sites in past years were located on the main or public side of the lake north of the Route 208 bridge. This year’s test sites will be confirmed in mid-March.

LACA plans to test for blue-green algae at four locations on streams that feed into the lake. DEQ will monitor another 10 upstream sites. The data collected is expected to help determine the source of nutrients that may be a cause of recent harmful algae outbreaks.  

The association is also considering more extensive testing of 27 sites as frequently as once a week.

In order to conduct more extensive testing, the LACA board recently approved spending $12,000 to purchase additional equipment. The devices will test for chlorophyll and phycocyanin, which are pigments in plants and some forms of bacteria that use photosynthesis to produce sugars.

If the monitoring team finds high levels of blue-green algae, it will notify state officials for further evaluation.  

Recent water quality data is available on LACA’s website at www.lakeannavirginia.org.

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